With the passage of the 2018 Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, adults may legally possess up to 71 grams (2.5 oz), and grow up to 12 plants. Michigan is one of 25 states to fully decriminalize cannabis, while 34 states have enacted some form of medicinal provision.
Ann Arbor was the first municipality in America to decriminalize cannabis in 1972, when the city council passed a statutory ordinance to enact a $5 fine for simple possession. This was strengthened by a ballot initiative passed in 1974 to place the code violation into the City Charter, and prevent the issue from becoming a political third rail for future politicians.
That was prescient, as some city council Republicans promoted a ballot initiative in April 1983 to remove the $5 fine from the city charter. It was a dark time in America with the hysteria of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. The result was a quixotic, but successful campaign to preserve the $5 fine.
During my 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have often reminded people that Ann Arbor was the first municipality to decriminalize reefer back in 1972. This surprises some crusty old NorCal hippies, who refuse to believe that anything this progressive would start anywhere but California. I also enjoy reminding people that Tom Hayden and the Port Huron Statement were vital components of the 1964 Free Speech Movement.
The reaction to the initiative was a series of meetings among young Ann Arbor progressives led by David DeVarti, the publisher of the Michigan Football Guide. An irony is that DeVarti had never smoked marijuana, but recognized the importance of the issue to a progressive agenda.
I had worked with him for two years as an account executive selling advertising, with occasional editorial tasks. Roger Kerson chaired a meeting on the top floor of the Michigan Union in February. Other key operatives were Rod Hunt (blessed memory), who designed the iconic “$5 is Fine with Me” lapel pin, and Aaron McClellan, another popular graphic artist who managed the production.
Somehow, I was designated as media point man for the campaign, an honor and task I accepted reluctantly. No one wanted to risk undue exposure by publicly advocating for the cause. I was fearful of a personal shakedown on my stash and finances, and disruption of the campaign effort. My greatest fear was a headline saying, “Organizer of $5 Fine Campaign Arrested for Possession!” Fortunately, none of that played out.
The campaign drew quiet support from former mayor Bob Harris, former city attorney Jerry Lax and other city leaders. We enlisted members of the legal, medical and business communities, and raised small donations up to $100.
The most amusing episode was when I interviewed Dr. Paul Domino at the U-M Hospital, who was one of the few scientists in the country with lab experience in marijuana study. He supported our effort privately, but could not do so publicly. In our meeting, he asked with his heavy Queens-Brooklyn accent about my experiences with the drug. When I said I never had hallucinations, he interrupted me briskly to say, “CONCLUSION, YOU SMOKE GODDAMN CHEAP MARIJUANA!” I smiled and said, “Well, I hope to know one day.”
I spoke to White Panther organizer John Sinclair, whose arrest for possession in 1971 sparked the original Ann Arbor campaign to establish the $5 fine. His cause elicited global attention through the John Sinclair Freedom Rally on December 10, 1971, headlined by John Lennon and Allen Ginsburg (with whom I got stoned in my college dorm room in 1974!)* Three days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Sinclair’s favor, saying that the state’s draconian punishment for possession was unconstitutional–Sinclair had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for two joints! In 2006, I met Sinclair at a Berkeley cannabis dispensary where he was a guest of honor, and we reminisced about these events.
The conventional wisdom was that the campaign to preserve the $5 fine was a futile, doomed effort. Still, we persevered, circulating petitions for an ad in the Ann Arbor News, sent news releases to the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, conducted print and radio interviews, and mostly enjoyed the process of a campaign we believed in. We carried on dutifully, though without great optimism.
One committee member pointed out that Election Day was on April 2, 1983, just ONE day after the venerable Ann Arbor Hash Bash. We realized that having van-loads of hippies converging on Ann Arbor from all over the Midwest would not serve our cause well.
So I initiated a disinformation campaign to keep the numbers down, and the weather cooperated too. The cold, rainy day kept many from making the drive, and we had people staged throughout town near freeway exits and entry points. It went like this: A driver would pull up and ask directions to the Hash Bash. We acted excited, and then gave directions to put them back in I-94 or US-23. We stationed people around the Diag, imploring people not to participate and told them why. We had a lot at risk the next day, namely our code-friendly smoking privileges.
On election night I had three speeches prepared: 1.) If we won; 2.) If we lost; 3.) If we lost BIG, which was the common projection.
As I was watching the 1983 Houston-NC State NCAA Basketball Final, I got a call from Ann Arbor News reporter Charles Childs. He said, “OK Scott, I’ve got some results for you . . . For – 38%; Against – 62%, what do you have to say?” As I processed this with my mouth wide open, I answered, “I don’t know; give me a minute.” He repeated, “So, what’s your reaction?” I replied, “I don’t know; give me a minute; this is the only outcome I didn’t prepare for.”
I offered a statement of gratitude for my friends and colleagues who worked hard to make it a successful campaign; and for the voters who supported it, some with reluctance. They recognized the importance of dispensing with heavy fines and prison terms for smoking reefer, even if it was not part of their lifestyle. And I praised the original authors of the city charter amendment for their vision.
As thoughtful cannabis legislation becomes more pervasive in America, Ann Arbor can be proud that it all started here.

H. Scott Prosterman is an editor and communications consultant in Oakland-Berkeley, and holds an M.A. from the University of Michigan Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He served as Editor of Maize, Office-Hospitality Manager for the Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra and Ann Arbor Ballet Theatre; and was involved with fundraising for The Ark. Scott was also a charter member of the Ann Arbor Triathlon Club.

*Getting stoned with Allen Ginsburg is another story.